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Share a garden gift that grows on you

Succulents combine with cedar sprigs to make this attractive grapevine wreath that will stay fresh for weeks.
Succulents combine with cedar sprigs to make this attractive grapevine wreath that will stay fresh for weeks. Mountain Crest Gardens

Nora Alderson likes to think of succulents as the garden gift that keeps on giving.

“Any gardener who has succulents likes to share them,” said Alderson, general manager of Mountain Crest Gardens, a major online succulent nursery based in Northern California. “Most succulents can go from a cutting right into the soil.”

Beloved by plant collectors and adored by florists, succulents are having their spotlight moment. (That’s another plus in the gifting category.)

“Succulents are extremely popular right now,” Alderson said. “There’s absolutely more interest, at least two-fold from just a couple of years ago.”

And not just for use in outdoor gardens. Succulents can take the place of traditional flowers in living bouquets and arrangements.

“They’ve become very popular for weddings,” Alderson noted. “Ever since Martha Stewart used them, it’s just gone crazy.”

The holiday season gives succulents another chance to shine. With foliage ranging from silvery blue to vivid red and green, they can be incorporated into wreaths, arranged into bouquets and planted into just about any type of container. As decorations, cuttings can stay fresh looking without water for at least two to three weeks.

“You can use most anything for a container,” she said. “I found an old cast-iron sleigh and made it into Santa’s sleigh, stuffed with succulents. It’s really fun to take a container and think, ‘What can I do with this?’ 

Alderson turned old teapots, mugs and watering cans into vessels for succulents. No drainage hole is necessary, she explained, but use a sand and gravel mix instead of potting soil for planting.

“I love turning garden junk into a really cool arrangement,” she said. “It’s not expensive and fun.”

Succulent cuttings tied up with ribbon, lace, raffia or other wrappings make a great “instant” gift for gardeners on your list. Unrooted cuttings also look good in a vase or mason jar, arranged like a floral bouquet. (The recipient can plant the succulents later.)

For holiday wreaths, Alderson ties succulents onto a grapevine or sticks them into a moss-packed base.

“Get the base wet, poke holes, then tuck the succulents right into the base,” she said.

Alderson uses Styrofoam as a base for some of her succulent decorations. “You can make your own ‘Christmas tree,’ ” she said. “Get a foam cone from the crafts store. Poke holes in the foam with a screwdriver. Start at the bottom and tuck cuttings into the holes. Cover the whole cone and you have a ‘tree’ all made of succulents.

“You can tuck moss around the succulents if you’d like to make it looker fuller. Or you can add little ornaments or other decorations. It’s easy to water; just run it under the tap in the sink and the foam will soak it right up. But it can go the whole Christmas season without water.”

For Christmas, Alderson came up with an unusual idea for her tree.

“I planted mini succulents in little tiny silver pails, tied with red bows, then hung them on the tree,” she said.

The idea worked so well, Mountain Crest started offering the pre-planted pails to customers.

From its unlikely base in Fort Jones, Mountain Crest has grown into an online powerhouse, supplying succulents to gardeners, landscapers and florists nationwide. The nursery grows more than 650 varieties including many different kinds of haworthia, kalanchoe, senecio, aeonium and sedum. The nursery grows more than 200 varieties just of cold-tolerant sempervivum (commonly known as hen and chicks).

Four hours north of Sacramento, Mountain Crest Gardens is located in Siskiyou County’s Scott Valley, west of Yreka. It’s not an area usually associated with succulents.

“It was 19 degrees this morning,” Alderson said. “The plants were fine.”

Most of them grow in greenhouses for protection – not just from cold, but rain. While many varieties will tolerate temperatures down in the teens, succulents can’t stand wet feet. Too much rain (or irrigation) will cause them to rot.

“We’re in (USDA) Zone 5, which can get down to minus-20 degrees,” she said. “In Sacramento (and Zone 9), you can get a little bit of a dip (below freezing) but not much. Most of what we grow could be outdoors all the time.”

Even folks who have never gardened can have success with succulents.

“Succulents are survivors,” Alderson said. “They’re pretty tolerant of neglect. People say they don’t have a green thumb, but they can grow succulents just fine.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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